John Keats once wrote a poem about the moon who fell in love with a young shepherd as he slept in her soft glow at night. The first few lines are familiar to us:
A THING of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A shady quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams…(Endymion)
When we understand what makes something really precious, then our whole life changes. In that wonderful moment, we even get a glimpse of eternity. It might help to offer an example—actually, a counter-example.
In graduate school, I had a professor whose father was a musical composer. Evidently, he was equal parts brilliant and sarcastic, and could bring his students down a peg if ever they thought too highly of themselves. One day, a student “complained” to him saying, “Everything I write sounds like Brahms or Schumann.” He replied: “You should be so lucky…” In a world where “everybody gets a medal” just for playing the game, we need people who can tell us the difficult truths, not to humiliate us, but to make us better. They know that when everything is special, then nothing is special. It takes time, patience, and training to develop in the young a “taste,” as it were, for truth, and beauty, and goodness. Not everything is of equal value, and we do well to know exactly how to distinguish the exquisite from the mediocre. Likewise in the spiritual life, our task is to discover the extraordinary presence of God in our everyday world.
Today’s Scriptures emphasize this lesson. In the first reading from the book of Kings, God gives the teenaged Solomon, who has just accepted the burden of governing, the choice of a gift. He could ask for riches, or power, or even long life, but he doesn’t; instead, he asks for wisdom, in order to know right from wrong. God grants his request, and all the others besides, because the boy demonstrates the right priorities: God’s will comes first, and everything else falls into place.
This reading helps us understand St. Matthew’s gospel. Jesus ends his teaching with three final parables: the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, and the dragnet of fish. I read that in the ancient world, people often buried their valuables during violent times. The person who makes the surprising discovery is praised because he realizes the value of what he has found. So too, the merchant finds something precious, but there is a difference here; in this case he may have searched his entire life before finding his heart’s desire. Finally, the dragnet full of fish teaches us the importance of good judgment, knowing what is priceless from what is worthless.
Friends, we Catholics realize that the life of faith is a constant lesson in developing a “taste” for the things of heaven, for what brings us closer to God. For what it’s worth: St. Ephrem points out that a pearl is the only gem that comes from a living being. Our pearl is God himself. A life spent in pursuit of such treasure is well worthwhile.